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Mary Davenport is undoubtedly still recovering from the big deliveries she experienced last week. As chair of the University of Minnesota's presidential search committee, she delivered to the Board of Regents three strong finalists and, on Feb. 26, a winning candidate, President-designate Rebecca Cunningham.

When I caught up with Davenport three days later, she was in New Mexico, en route to the delivery of a new grandchild in Arizona.

That much excitement would have left me breathless. But Davenport, a Board of Regents member and a lifelong higher ed professional, sounded calm, confident and upbeat — and she left me feeling upbeat about the condition of this state's flagship university.

Make that upbeat and relieved.

For months this winter, as the 24-member search committee collected applications from 46 presidential wannabes, gloomy speculation about the committee's prospects swirled about town.

It's a bad time for a search, the head-shakers whispered. Too many desirable would-be university presidents don't want the job now — not with public confidence in higher education falling and political brickbats flying. Too many other schools are in the hunt right now. The search committee's determination to put their finalists through a public vetting, complete with whirlwind tours of the U's Greater Minnesota campuses, will keep top candidates away.

Behind those worries was another, less often spoken aloud but clearly felt: Maybe the University of Minnesota isn't prestigious enough, stable enough or rich enough to attract the academy's best and brightest.

Davenport dismissed such concern as overblown.

"We had exceptional candidates," she said of the 46 applications the committee received. "We were able to attract top candidates from top universities. This was the best job out there."

That wasn't just because the university's reputation is stronger than some naysayers believe, though Davenport assures that it is. But it's also because the U has an underappreciated competitive advantage — its relationship with Minnesotans.

"Our state's environment is welcoming. We value higher education. These candidates appreciate what we offer as a state, and they wanted to be part of that."

The fact that governors and legislatures in some other states — say, Florida — have sought to control what's said and taught in public higher education classrooms may have given Minnesota's presidential searchers an unanticipated edge.

So could what Davenport called the "overriding positivity" about higher education that Minnesotans conveyed to candidates for the job.

"They didn't hear 'Why do we need the U?' They heard that higher education is so important in this state. It's personally meaningful to people."

If anything, Minnesotans told the search committee they want more of the U and more from the U — more connection, more communication, more problem-solving. They want the assurance that their university is in their corner as they confront climate change, an aging population and health care challenges.

"People think we're at a crossroads as a state," Davenport said. "They want to be in partnership with us."

Minnesotans have a better university than some of them know, she said. But "we can be better at explaining our distinction." A veteran of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, Davenport believes closer ties are in order between the state's two big public systems.

She also wants more coordination among the university's five campuses, for the sake of cost-saving efficiency and the positive message that would send. "We don't want to be always cutting. We want to be investing," Davenport said.

Joan Gabel's five-year U presidency ended in mid-2023 with her critics saying she had been a less-than-engaged leader, particularly with the Minnesota Legislature. Since then, interim President Jeff Ettinger has done much to build relationships and tell the U's story at the Capitol and around the state. He recently told the Star Tribune Editorial Board that public outreach has been among his top priorities.

Outreach should be a top priority for Cunningham as well when she moves into Morrill Hall on July 1. As Davenport attests, a good relationship between Minnesotans and their U, as embodied by its president, isn't a mere nicety. It's a competitive asset.

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.